Given the exponential growth of the economy in Gulf countries, it would be expected that those that willed this climb up the social ladder for many of the Middle Eastern countries would be treated to the highest and most respectable standards. Migrant workers are said to make up nearly 90% of the UAE population; yet they are seen to be marginalised and exploited, with no legal safeguards available to them.
Migrant workers, certainly those working in the domestic sector, undergo a litany of abuse, particularly verbal abuse. Many workers report being called ‘animal’ in Arabic, along with other degrading terms, also reporting being shouted at like children. The Saudi Embassy states in Article 91 of the Labour and Workmen Law that an employer must ‘treat his workmen with due respect and refrain from any word or deed that may affect their dignity‘ and this law would allow for the prosecution of many perpetrators yet it is in fact futile in the domestic work sector. This law was made by the Saudi Embassy to entirely exclude domestic workers, so they simply cannot reap its benefits and are left unprotected by the law.
Physical and sexual abuse is also prevalent, with again very little legal intervention. A famous case is that of Kasturi Murinathiram, in which an Indian domestic worker attempted to flee her abusive employer’s home in Saudi Arabia, attempting to escape from a window and using her Sari as a rope. Her employer allegedly cut off her hand when she found her doing so, leading to her falling 3 floors and sustaining devastating injuries. Despite this story going viral in the media and being brought to authorities’ attention, they proved to be utterly inept in taking action. The employer that had caused Murinathiram’s injuries was not legally retributed whatsoever for her actions.
Migrant workers are also subject to severe wage exploitation. Many illegally immigrate to countries such as Qatar and the UAE after being goaded into work by agencies with false promises of high pay, yet they are met with a brutal reality as soon as they begin work. Thousands of domestic workers in the Gulf are underpaid, some serving their employers for over a year and not receiving any pay at all. Regulations in Saudi Arabia are seen to declare that workers are paid fairly and on time but again, these are patently ignored, leaving workers even more vulnerable.
Qatar has recently pursued the reform of their domestic worker laws, meaning that from 2020, workers do not require a certificate from their employer to be able to change employment and this greatly prevents the huge dependency of the worker on the employer. Note that most workers were trapped by abusive employers as they were simply not given permission to leave and doing so without consent would result in them being prosecuted for absconding and possibly fined, deported and even receiving a one-year entry ban.
Although Qatar’s attempt to rectify the law seems well- intentioned, it still allows for a tragic loophole. A worker may find the courage to file an abuse case against his or her sponsor after having fled the abusive home. In the most serious cases of abuse, the worker may have been denied a phone and not allowed to leave the house without a supervisor, thus they would be unable to collect sufficient evidence for their claim without being caught. Then the employer will be made aware of the case filed against them; therefore, in retaliation, they may file an absconding case against the victim, coaxing them into dropping their suit. This evidently means that there is an immensely low level of prosecution in this area of law, and it will continue to be riddled with corruption and ill-treatment if not attended to and fixed.
Ultimately, the law is deficient regarding ensuring the legal and human rights of workers. As of now, authorities are not seeking to rectify the apparent flaws that are causing devastation and sometimes even death to migrant domestic workers. Reform in this area is often placed in a pessimistic light and it is thought that any significant change is greatly unlikely as several protests have taken place and have had minimal effect on authorities. Note, however, that the protests that took place around 10 years ago in the Gulf led to the ratification of ILO’s C189, the Domestic Workers Convention (2011), which led to significant change for domestic workers as they were finally gaining legal rights and protection. It is truly only the law that can improve the working conditions in the domestic work sector and make sure that perpetrators are held accountable for the bestial way that they are treating those that they view as lesser. Thus, it is vital that this topic is not swept under the rug and instead as many people are educated about it as possible.